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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Go Hybrid Go: Proprietary solutions not gone, but morphed and stronger

Last October in the 1st Bluetooth evolution conference, the two semiconductor rivals for ultra low power radio, TI and Nordic Semiconductor, both stated, during their presentations in front of a hall of industry experts and medias, that proprietary solutions will not go, quite stunning to the many Bluetooth Low Energy (then still called ULP Bluetooth) enthusiastic audiences and disconcerting the pleasant atmosphere.

As a relatively new comer to the ultra low power wireless world at that time, I was one of the stunned audiences and thought the reason these two companies claimed this way should be simply because both have their own proprietary solutions. Was it sounded natural and reasonable that standards such as Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Energy should unify the segmented industry? Using open standard, paying zero royalty fee, developing products, companies across the supply chain work and compete in a fair playing ground. Shouldn’t things just work like that?

In the just passed 2nd Bluetooth evolution conference, Nordic semiconductor further has claimed that for sports market, Bluetooth Low Energy is too late to the market. Its technology competitor, ANT, has gained the momentum and started to dominate this niche.

ANT is far from a single such cases. There are several major proprietary solutions that facing competition of a standard, not only did they disappear, they compete right on and have been growing even faster and conquering more market shares. Interestingly, they all unanimously become hybrid, establishing an open industrial consortium to provide interoperability and integrate supply chain based on its proprietary solution. To take a quick look:

Z-Wave Alliance: building on Zensys' proprietary solution, Z-wave, a 160 member organization, is probably the first such hybrid solution for wireless sensor network. It competes with Zigbee head-to-head and we all know who is the current winner of the home automation market. Started from Denmark, Zensys is private and now headquartered in silicon valley.

EnOcean Alliance: on top of EnOcean's proprietary solution. EnOcean alliance only established this April, but already has more than 60 members. A spin-off of Siemens, EnOcean offers unique building automation solution combining self-powered or battery-less power technology with wireless networking. Again, it competes with standard organization Zigbee and has taken a big chunk of the pie in the building arena.

ANT+ Alliance: based on Dynastream's proprietary ANT protocol, ANT+ Alliance is another alliance established around this April, but its membership growth rate is even faster, with more than 90 member companies right now. ANT sometimes claims it can do complex networking and there are white papers comparing ANT to Zigbee. But the main market of ANT is actually sports and fitness. So a more appropriate competing technology of ANT should be Bluetooth Low Energy Technology, which is of course still in draft. Dynastream was purchased by Garmin end of 2006, which adds a little bit complexity to the ownership of ANT.

If viewed in reference of OSI model, the above hybrids alliance are examples of open upper application, presentation and session layers on top of proprietary lower physical, data and network layers.

The term "hybrid advantage" in stemmed from genetics study. The reproduction from a pair of two different varieties of a species may create a new generation that has characteristics better than either of its parents. In the real world, after a long long natural selection process, the survivals are often the hybrids who best fit the environments. In this fast moving WSN industry, the hybrid solutions take the advantage of focus from proprietary and the advantage of interoperability from standard. No wonder could they win the game with its competitors often slow reacted and distracted.

In the WSN battle field, there is also no lack of the sandwich hybrid model, in which the proprietary middle layer (network, transportation and session) are well sitting in between a standard lower layer (physical and data) and open upper layer. WirelessHART's architecture is one of such, where adopted Dust Networks' TSMP is building on IEEE standard 802.15.4. RF4CE is another example on top of IEEE 802.15.4, but here it is the Freescale's proprietary Synkro sitting in the middle.

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